Updated 01 May 2017 by Thomas
It’s no secret that mastering background blur (also called bokeh) can dramatically improve the quality of your photography.
There are few other techniques that are so simple yet so effective.
Getting bokeh right depends on several factors: choosing the right equipment, aperture settings, focus and light sources.
If you want to take stunning photos, bokeh is a must.
And this guide we’re going to show you everything you need to create amazing effects with bokeh.
Let’s dive right in.
Chapter 1: What is Bokeh?
Chapter 2: Selecting the Right Equipment
Chapter 3: Mastering Bokeh Step by Step
Chapter 4: Creating Your Own Bokeh Shapes
What is Bokeh?
Understanding few basics about bokeh will enable you master it much more quickly.
The question is:
Why is bokeh so important and how can it improve your photography?
Read on to find out.
Bokeh is the the aesthetic quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas of an image. It is most visible around small reflections or light sources in the background.
It comes from the Japanese word boke meaning blur or haze.
Bokeh is usually pronounced “boh-kay” although there are other pronunciations as well.
If you prefer avoiding fancy words, calling it ‘background blur’ is completely fine, too.
There are two characteristics that define the quality of background blur:
1. The gradient between the light and the dark areas of the photograph. This can be smooth or sharp.
2. The shape a small dot of light takes when it is inside the bokeh area.
Why is bokeh so important?
A skilled use of background blur helps the subject in the foreground to stand out and gives it more prominence. It separates it from the background and his forces the viewer to focus on a particular area of the picture.
Often shots using bokeh don’t have a foreground object at all, which can look equally stunning.
Bokeh makes a picture much more visually appealing. This is especially true when you have a scene with multiple small lights, which will be rendered as large circles of light by the lens.
It is worth remembering that bokeh includes the the entire fuzzy background area in a picture, not only the lights and reflections.
What is beautiful bokeh?
Images that appear most pleasing to the eye have smooth round circles of light with soft edges. In ‘good’ bokeh, the blurry areas should transition into each other with nice fizzy and ‘creamy’ edges.
Remember that simply blurring the background is not enough. ‘Bad’ bokeh usually contains hard lines and distract the eye from the main subject of the image.
Now we know that bokeh is, let’s have a look at what we need to make it happen.
Selecting the Right Equipment for Stunning Bokeh Effects
With a bit of practice, achieving great bokeh effects is not difficult.
Having the right equipment will make it much easier and create amazing results.
Let’s briefly cover what you need:
To achieve the desired bokeh effect you need a camera with a large diameter lens and be able to manually adjust focus and aperture of your camera. A good quality DSLR is ideal.
When choosing a lens the simple rule is: the bigger the aperture and the higher quality the lens is, the better.
A larger aperture (smaller F-number) will make the dots of light appear larger in the shot.
If you can, use a good portrait or telephoto lens with a really small F-stop.
A lens with a maximum aperture of F1.8 like the Canon 50mm F1.8 or Nikon 50mm 1.8 is great. The amazing Nikon 50mm 1.4 will work even better.
The varying optical design of the lens creates a different bokeh effect because Bokeh is rendered by the lens, not the camera.
Cheaper consumer lenses tend to produce poor bokeh while high quality fixed and professional zoom lenses will create beautiful bokeh.
Lenses and bokeh shapes
The lens diaphragm will determine the shape of light in the out of focus areas. Most new lenses will render bokeh as round dots of light since their diaphragms consist of 9 rounded blades. Older lenses tend to use 7 blades with straight edges, resulting in hexagonal bokeh.
Mirror lenses, which are often used in wildlife photography, create ‘donut’ shaped bokeh. Some people find the donut shapes ugly and distracting while others find them completely acceptable. This is really a matter of personal opinion and you should have a look at some examples before buying a mirror lens.
Often you will be shooting at low light and fairly long (30 secs) exposure times, so keeping your camera completely still is essential.
You can use a stable surface to place your camera on but a tripod will give you much more flexibility when composing your shot.
4. Wire Release (optional)
Pressing the shutter release button can lead to a small amount of unwanted shaking.
This is a problem especially when taking pictures with long exposure times.
The easiest way around this is to use a cable release. It will connect to your camera and ensure your camera stays completely still when the shutter releases.
Don’t want to spend money on buying a cable release?
Use this trick:
If the exact timing of your shot is not important you can set the camera’s self timer to a short interval (5-10 seconds).
The camera will count down and release the shutter without any risk of shaking.
Mastering Bokeh Step by Step
Owning the right equipment is a good starting point but it won't produce great shots by itself.
So, how do you actually create a beautiful bokeh effect?
It's a combination of several factors and a bit of trial and error.
Let's have a look how it is done:
You can easily set up a scene by using a small foreground object and a place number of small lights in the background. Christmas lights are ideal for this.
Alternatively, any environment with multiple light sources like bars or art installations can create great effects too.
If you are shooting outdoors, you can use a person or an object in the foreground. Alternatively, shots without a foreground subject can look equally as good.
Pick a background with multiple light sources - a lit street or city panorama at night are ideal.
Switch to manual focus and set your camera’s focus as close as you can. This could be around 50cm but depends on the lens you are using.
Your image will now have a very narrow depth of field because if the large aperture you’re using.
The background it will appear blurry and the lights will appear as circles or hexagons, depending on the lens you are using.
If you are using a subject in the foreground the shallow depth of field means you need to decide exactly which part of the subject to focus on. Even on small objects, some areas will be a bit out of focus.
Select aperture priority mode and select the largest aperture (smallest F number) possible. The larger the aperture, the larger the dots of light will appear in the picture.
F4 will give you good results although F1.8 and F1.4 will be even better.
The further away the camera is from the background the better. If you are shooting indoors, increase the distance between the foreground subject and the background as much as you can.
The more you zoom in the larger the circles of light will appear in your picture. If you’re shooting indoors and are using a zoom lens, step back and then zoom in as far as it makes sense.
Creating Your Own Bokeh Shapes
Taking shots with bokeh shapes you have created yourself is one of the most fun things you can do.
Let's have a look how to make your own.
First, you’ll need to get some thick black paper or card.
The thickness of the card it important - too tick and it will be difficult to cut a precise shape, too thin and with will not stay in place.
There are two ways to attach your custom bokeh shape to the lens:
Take strip of paper about 1 inch wide, tightly fit it around the end of your lens to create a ring and use some tape to hold it together.
Then cut a round shape with the same diameter as the ring you just created.
Use some tape to attach the round shape to the ring and you will have a cap that can be pushed onto the end of your lens.
Most UV and similar filters have an edge which works great for holding your custom bokeh shape in place. The round shape should be just big enough to fit without falling out.
Next, we need to cut out our custom bokeh shape. Depending on the tools you have available, there are a couple of options:
Important: Make sure your cutout is exactly in the centre of your lens.
The easiest way to create a custom bokeh shape is the draw your design onto the card and then use a scalpel to cut it out. You can buy scalpels at most art supply stores.
2: Paper punch
To achieve precise and more complex shapes you can buy a paper punch. They come on all shapes and sizes: stars, snowflakes, butterflies, leaves and many more.
3: Laser cutter
For ultimate precision and to cut out complex shapes a laser cutter is your best choice. If you don't own a laser cutter you can have bokeh filters made for you. Read on as we will explain how you can do this below.
How big does the cutout need to be?
This depends on the shape you have selected but also on your camera and lens.
There is no exact answer and it will require a bit of trial and error. A larger cutout will allow more light onto the camera. If your cutout is too small you will need much longer exposure times.
Start with a small cutout and check the exposure time necessary with the largest aperture setting. If it is too long, try increasing the size of the cutout until you can achieve a reasonable exposure time.
What if you don’t happen to have a laser cutter at home?
Answer: Have custom shapes made for you! Here is how...
Creating high quality bokeh shapes if you don't own a laser cutter
Ponoko.com is a great service that allows you to upload your custom design files. Your design will then be laser cut and your bokeh filters will be posted to you.
And it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to do:
Download the design templates provided by Ponoko. Templates are provided for a number of popular applications. For this example we'll be using Inkscape, which is free and runs on MacOS, Windows and Linux.
In Inkscape, draw a circle that is slightly smaller than the diameter of your lens cap or filter.
Then draw a second, smaller circle that partially overlaps the large circle and from in the menu select Path > Difference. This will create a finger notch at the top of the filter.
Draw your custom bokeh shape or use a design from a library and make sure it sits directly in the centre of the large circle.
Make sure your cutout is the right size and lets through enough light before spending money to have it laser cut. To do this, experiment with paper cutouts until you are happy with the result.
Select all lines and set the weight to 0.01mm and colour to blue. The template file will also have information of the weight and colour your lines should be set to.
Select File > Save as, and select format as 'Inkscape SVG'.
Go to the Ponoco website and upload your design. Once it has bee laser cut it will be posted to you. You now have a professional looking bokeh shape!
What if you don't want to make your own bokeh shapes?
If you want to use bokeh effects regularly and need shapes that will last a long time, you can buy a bokeh kit.
Most kits come with a variety of shapes and are made of durable plastic. Before you buy, check the kit you chose fits your lens.
We hope you enjoyed this guide on creating your own bokeh effects.
If you found it useful, please consider sharing it!